Sunday, October 23, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: Five Dolls for an August Moon

Boasting one of the most spurious titles in the entire history of the giallo, Mario Bava’s essay in lifestyle chic and amorality proves that sometimes style over substance wins the day – particularly when you’ve got access to a beach house that would make Frank Lloyd Wright weep in envy, the retro-coolest set design ever, and a cast – including Edwige Fenech, Ira von Furstenberg, Helena Ronee, Edith Meloni and Ely Galleani – for whom the term “eye candy” could well have been coined.

Essentially, the narrative is little more than this: a bunch of dudes with hot wives/mistresses/girlfriends invite a dude who has something they want (as well as a hot wife of his own) to an island where they make him various offers to acquire the thing he has that they want. The dude who has the thing the other dudes want won’t sell, and as tempers run higher, a murderer strikes. And strikes again. And again. And … well, you get the picture.

Filling in the above paragraph, Professor Farrell (William Berger) and his wife Trudy (von Furstenberg) accept an invitation to stay at the island home of industrialist George Sagan (Teodoro Corra) and his wife Jill (Meloni); the other guests include Nick and Marie (a.k.a. Pook) Cheney (Maurice Poli and Edwige Fenech), and Jack and Peggy Davidson (Howard Ross and Helena Renee). Ostensibly, Sagan, Cheney and Davidson have formed a consortium to buy a formula for an industrial resin that Farrell has developed, but each is keen to cut a deal with Farrell directly and shaft the others. Offers are made to Farrell. Serious offers. At one point, there’s five million on the table.

Mind you, that’s in lire, and the best currency conversion I could come up with in the five minutes I bothered to spend on the internet – bearing in mind lire was replaced by the Euro over 15 years ago – is about $3500, or £2685. It was probably worth a bit more in 1970, when the film was made.

But I digress. Farrell refuses because he wants his formula to be used for the good of mankind … and just pull the McGuffin omnibus over to the side of the Fuck-The-Audience-They’re-Not-Bothered highway. An industrial resin? Like fucking glue? Like a particularly strong fucking glue? Seriously: this Farrell geezer has just reinvented motherfucking Araldite and everyone’s offering him blank cheques and a quick feel of Edwige Fenech for it?

Anyway, that’s the basic set up. Dude who has summat. Other dudes who want it. Hot wives. Fucking glue. And because this irresistible narrative hook ain’t never going to fill even the skimpy 77 minute running time, Bava throws a bunch of other stuff into the mix. Stuff like: Pook having it off on the quiet with the Sagans’ houseboy. Stuff like: Sapphic tensions simmering away between Trudy and Jill. Stuff like: island girl Isabel (Galleani, appearing under her pseudonym Justine Gall) flitting about all over the place and guiltily spying on everyone.

All well and good, except we’ve barely had a glimpse of Fenech sans chemise when the houseboy turns up dead, and the Trudy/Jill subplot is never developed in an aesthetically satisfactory manner. If you know what I mean.

But let’s get back to the houseboy for a moment. Not only is the poor bastard denied his liaison with the pert and prepossessing Pook, but the party who discover him are faced with the quandary of leaving him on the beach until the police arrive (immediate problem: sand crabs looking for a midnight snack) or wrapping his body in plastic and hanging it in the meat store. The increasing proliferation of bodies in the deep freeze, each new cadaver swinging merrily on its hook to the accompaniment of lounge jazz, is the best joke in a film that Bava seems to have conceived as an absurdist comedy from the outset.

It certainly doesn’t function as a thriller – we’re past the hour mark before he throws in the one single scene that even bothers to function as an Agatha Christie-lite “hey let’s all try to figure out how the seemingly impossible happened” mystery – and it only just makes the cut as a horror movie thanks to a couple of genuinely effective and grotesque images. Mainly, he just lets a group of rich, nasty, sexy people roam around a picturesque island, frequently cutting away from them to admire the architecture of the beach house.

Most gialli dabble in architecture porn; ‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’ is architecture eroticism. I’m not kidding. For the entire duration of the film – I watched the American release, which runs ten minutes shorter than the Italian cut and still feels like it drags – I wanted that beach house. And I wanted its 1970 interior design. And if Edwige Fenech and Ely Galleani fancied popping over for the housewarming, I wouldn’t have said no.

Friday, October 21, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: Little Deaths

‘Little Deaths’ is a British portmanteau film – though without the usual hokey framing device that ties the stories together – which pertains to explore the relationship between eroticism and horror, sex and death. The clue’s in the title: la petite mort, y’all.

The first story, ‘House and Home’ is directed by Sean Hogan and starts with a snapshot of moneyed middle class couple, Richard (Luke De Lacey) and Victoria (Siubhan Harrison): their marriage seems brittle, Victoria doesn’t like Richard touching her, but they do seem to enjoying discussing, in oblique terms, some nasty bit of business they’ll be indulging in later. Said bit of business is quickly revealed – ‘House and Home’ runs just under 25 minutes, the shortest of the three tales – as the luring of a young homeless woman to their house under the pretext of Christian charity. It’s intimated that they do this kind of thing quite often. This time round, the winsome Sorrow (Holly Lucas) is their victim du jour.

A scene midway through, where their pretence at philanthropy slips and their real motives come to the fore as Sorrow realises that she’s been drugged, is effective enough, but what follows is strictly boilerplate. Yup: there’s kinky basement set-up. Yup: Richard and Victoria have sublimated the sterility of their marriage into the use of sex slaves. Yup: Sorrow proves to be more than they bargained for and graphic horror ensues. As a satire it’s heavy-handed: wow, rich and entitled people shaft poor people – who’d a thunk it? As a horror, its revelation that Sorrow and her fellow homeless are literal demons is reductive and kind of cancels out the social point Hogan was trying to make earlier.

On the plus side, Lucas’s performance is good; and Hogan as writer and director proves that he can keep the narrative tight and uncluttered. Which is more than can be said for Andrew Parkinson’s ‘Mutant Tool’.

I honestly don’t know where to start with ‘Mutant Tool’. It has enough, uh, “ideas” for a full-length feature though one I’m not sure I’d want to sit through. We have a vaguely humanoid figure with a floor-length penis chained up behind a plastic sheet in a dank basement. We have its keeper, a cynical chap known only as “X” (Christopher Fairbank) spewing oodles of exposition about Nazi experiments to his newly employed assistant. We have a practising GP, Dr Reece (Brendan Gregory), who is developing a new drug from the, ah, emissions the aforementioned captive mutant. We have a pimp and small time drug dealer, Frank (Daniel Brocklebank), who sidelines in the non-consensual removal of people’s livers, which he sells to Dr Reece who uses them to feed the mutant. And we have Frank’s girlfriend Jennifer (Jodie Jameson), a former hooker and druggie who is proving useless as a dealer (which is kind of like giving a former dipso a job behind a bar) and considering going back on the game.

Parkinson’s attempt to intersect these various plot strands, play the characters off against each other and pull off a twist ending (albeit one that’s so biologically nonsensical it makes ‘The Human Centipede’ look like a documentary about Lambert Rodgers) clearly required longer than 35 minutes. As well as a serious overhaul of the script, which is full of inconsistencies. For instance, a side effect of the drug is a brief psychic connection with anyone the patient touches in the form of an hallucination about something they did that was violent; so why does Dr Reece administer it to Jennifer since she’ll naturally have physical contact with Frank and immediately hallucinate his murder of someone for their liver?

Moreover, apart from two brief scenes where Jennifer returns to her former line of work, sex is conspicuously absent from ‘Mutant Tool’. It’s almost as if Parkinson was developing ‘Mutant Tool’ as a standalone feature, got an offer of funding as part of the portmanteau and quickly retrofitted the script to include some grunting and nudity.

The third and final story, ‘Bitch’, is written and directed by Simon Rumley. Where Hogan’s career has yet to take off (he’s made two features and two shorts in the last eleven years and has a couple of project in development) and Parkinson’s seems to have stalled (his last feature was ‘Venus Drowning’ in 2005 and he hasn’t directed since ‘Little Deaths’, made five years ago), Rumley seems to be going from strength to strength: seven features, one in post-production, a cluster of upcoming projects, a handful of short films and plenty of acclaim and awards at festivals. It shows: ‘Bitch’ has a specific visual style, some arresting images, and performances that indicate he has a facility with actors. What these talents are harnessed in the service of, however … that’s where it gets tricky.

‘Bitch’ analyses the sexual power games between bored secretary Claire (Kate Braithwaite) and her limp lettuce leaf of a boyfriend Pete (Tom Sawyer). Claire has a phobia of dogs, which she deals with by making Pete wear a dog-mask and sleep in a man-sized doghouse constructed in a spare room. Pete hasn’t enjoyed these shenanigans in a while and takes his revenge by pissing in her underwear drawer, a transgression for which Claire sodomises him with a not-particularly-small strap-on. Claire also enjoys copping off with other blokes, and when this extends to Pete’s best mate Al (Tommy Carey), he decides enough is enough and plans his revenge.

Two problems swiftly unfold. Firstly, Rumley has already introduced a scene in which Pete behaves assertively towards Claire as a result of which – temporarily at least – she desists from openly provoking him; later, he destroys the doghouse and refuses to participate in Claire’s power games, precipitating a short period of relative normalcy in their relationship. In other words, Pete simply telling Claire that enough is enough is a solution in and of itself. Secondly, there’s no doubt that Pete has been complicit – either proactively (he sleeps in the doghouse of his own volition) or by inaction (not telling Al to leave when Claire makes a move on him) – in everything Claire does. Pete’s revenge on Claire is both outwith the defined structure of their existing relationship, and horribly misogynistic in its nature. That Rumley builds up to it in such leering detail makes it worse still.

So: ‘Little Deaths’ – a portmanteau film in which one of the contributions thematically cancels itself out, one can barely be bother to fulfil the remit, and the one with the most talent behind it is the most repulsive. A treatise on sex and death which doesn’t contain a single frame of eroticism.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Autopsy (a.k.a. Sunspots)

Armando Crispino’s ‘Autopsy’ is a film of two halves. In the first half, a wave of suicides sweeps Rome, somehow connected to solar activity. Overworked pathology intern Simona (Mimsy Farmer) labours on her thesis about staged suicides as a cover for homicide, icily rebuffs the advances of lecherous colleague Ivo (Ernesto Colli) and lecherous boyfriend-in-waiting Riccardo (Ray Lovelock), and is intrigued by her mysterious neighbour Betty Lenox (Gaby Wagner) who seems to be hiding a secret. Simona is also tormented by visions of the dead rising up from the morgue for a big ol’ undead orgy. When Betty turns up on a mortuary slab, Simona is thrown together with Betty’s brother Paul Lenox (Barry Primus), a former racing driver turned Catholic priest with the mother of all guilt complexes and some serious anger management issues.

To recap: aloof but sexy pathologist and nutjob priest team up to investigate suicides caused by the motherfucking sun! This is ‘Autopsy’ at its best, firing on all cylinders and gloriously demented. It lasts about twenty minutes.

The second half devolves into a generic mystery that manages to be both labyrinthine in its contrivances and utterly boilerplate in execution. Basically, Simona discovers – as if nobody could have guessed given the nature of her thesis – that Betty was murdered under the guise of her death being a suicide. This established, we hear no more of heatwave-related by-one’s-own-hand demises, nor is Simona troubled by any further visions of corpses doing the nasty. All of the good, lurid stuff that makes the first twenty minutes move and groove and tick all the right boxes is cursorily junked in favour of Nancy Drew Meets Father Dowling With A Restraining Order.

The mystery plays out in bloodless fashion as suspects ranging from Simona’s playboy father Gianni (Massimo Serato) to his current squeeze Danielle (Angela Goodwin) by way of the creepy caretaker (Leonardo Severino) in Simona’s apartment complex all take their turn to traipse in front of the camera, behave suspiciously for a while then bugger off again. Or get offed just to prove they were red herrings. There are a lot of red herrings in ‘Autopsy’ and rather than add to the suspense, they try the patience. Round about the hour mark, the whole thing had got so needlessly complex, without a single decent set-piece or stylish directorial flourish, that my interest waned. It didn’t help, either, that character interactions quickly devolve to the level of telenovella melodrama.

Ultimately, ‘Autopsy’ can’t decide what it wants to be. It starts off with a bizarro concept and a grab-bag of horror-specific imagery, then its tries to be a giallo but without any of the visual panache or narrative urgency that are the hallmarks of the best of that genre, before ending up as a mainstream-audience-friendly romantic thriller with a vertiginous finale that wants to ape Hitchcock. Oh, and just in case the audience start getting bored, it throws in a fair bit of nudity without ever trying to generate the frisson of eroticism.

Still, it’s got that splendid opening section and Farmer and Primus play off each well. In an alternative universe, though, there’s a cut of ‘Autopsy’ that makes good on these things, Simona and Father Lenox hurtling elliptically through the swelteringly surreal landscape of a Rome heat-seared into mania – a sort of ‘Footprints on the Moon’ but with the sun.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Last Girl Standing

The grim six-minute pre-credits sequence of Benjamin R. Moody’s ‘Last Girl Standings’ presents a litany of gore and woman-in-peril tropes that most horror movies would leave for their final reel. In short order, Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) witnesses the murder of her boyfriend by a psycho in a deer mask called The Hunter, barely escapes immolation herself, stumbles on the strung up and/or mutilated bodies of their friends at a campsite, tries to rescue someone who’s still alive but accidentally triggers one of The Hunter’s traps, killing them, fends off another attack by The Hunter, and more through luck than judgement outwits him. Later, emerging from the woods by a back road, she’s assisted by a good Samaritan motorist only to go into hysterics when she hallucinates The Hunter sitting in the back seat.

Four years later, Camryn’s living quietly in a new town, having utterly refused to talk to the press about what happened. In fact, Camryn doesn’t talk to anyone much. She holds down a tedious, low-wage job at a dry cleaning firm, lives in a one-room apartment that she hasn’t personalised in any way, and he only real possessions are some cardboard boxes containing files, news clippings and ephemera on the case. Moody intelligently uses the credits sequence to give an account of the media’s hyperbolic coverage of the story, Camryn’s determined avoidance of the limelight, local controversy over The Hunter’s burial in an unmarked grave, and the delight of Hunter obsessives on discovering the location of said resting place.

With all of this established, Moody takes a solid hour (‘Last Girl Standing’ has a run time, including end credits, of 91 minutes) to chart Camryn’s journey from PTSD and intimacy issues to catharsis/closure and social re-engagement. The catalyst is her new work colleague Nick (Brian Villalobos) who offers her a place to stay when she’s menaced by a mysterious figure whilst working late. Her close-guardedness is gradually challenged by Nick’s housemates, particularly the well meaning but clingy Hannah (Laura Ray) and the pragmatic Danielle (Danielle Evon Ploeger), herself the survivor of something psychologically damaging.

Camryn’s regular nightmares and intermittent hallucinations of The Hunter might be the product of her mind, but the Blair Witch-like totem she finds affixed to Nick’s chair at work, and the skinned rabbit hung up in Nick and his buddies’ back yard, are something else entirely, and she becomes convinced that, somehow, The Hunter has returned and that Nick, Danielle, Hannah and the others are in mortal danger purely because of their association with her.

Is Nick too good to be true? Is his artist friend who works in wood – and scours forests for trees that have fallen naturally because he can’t bear them to be cut down – more than he seems? Is Danielle’s complicity in Camryn’s darkly obsessive behaviour during a girls-only road trip indicative of other motives? Moody maintains a sense of uncertain in the background while keeping the character drama up front. He also plays with a lot of established horror tropes, seeming to set up any number of scare scenes only to subvert them. When the past comes crashing back into Camryn’s life during the last twenty minutes, the terror begins with a scene so traditional in its staging and gore that you’re convinced there’ll be a ‘reset’ any moment, indicating that Camryn’s mind is still troubled and her journey towards social functionality still has a way to go. But the scene rumbles on, all blood and gore and viscera … and Moody paints himself into a corner, there being only two logical ways it can play out.

And for all that the final act is as effective as anything the stalk ‘n’ slash genre has served up, there’s a tang of predictability about it. I get that Moody was going for circularity – a narrative option that can be utilised exceedingly well: see Christopher Smith’s ‘Triangle’ – but it’s a slight disappointment that the intense, intelligent and low-key character drama of the film’s extended mid-section is so hurriedly jettisoned in favour of boilerplate violence. It’s almost as if Moody were worried that his audience wouldn’t sit still for another twenty minutes of psychological portraiture and felt he had to make a sop to the gore-hounds.

In its defence, though, ‘Last Girl Standing’ achieves some impressive grace notes when it’s simply spending time with its characters and observing Camryn’s edgy navigation of even the simplest social circumstances. Akasha Villalobos gives a committed and commendably gauche performance as Camryn, while Danielle Evon Ploeger ought to be getting lead roles handed to her on a plate. Writer/director Moody, whose first feature this is, knows exactly what he’s doing with the material and wrings a fine piece of craftsmanship from the strictures of what was evidently a miserly budget. If he ultimately delivers something that just falls short of greatness, there’s plenty to suggest that he’ll succeed in the not too distant future.

Friday, October 14, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: Swiss Army Man

So: the farting corpse movie. Which progressively becomes the talking corpse movie; the corpse with a stiffy movie; and the gender confused corpse movie. And which finally, sad to say, identifies as the isn’t-this-movie-with-the-corpse-over-yet movie.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island and not coping well his entry-level “monarch of all I survey” opportunities. In fact, he’s on the verging of tendering his resignation. That’s “tendering his resignation” as in hanging himself, by the way. Then Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore and Hank is initially delighted at the prospect of company. The discovery that Manny is dead throws him back into despair, until he realises that Manny’s incessant flatulence can be used as a propulsive system. Delighted, Hank escapes the island by using Manny as a jet-ski.

This is all prior to the opening credits, incidentally.

Making landfall, Hank goes in search of civilisation. En route, he utilises Manny in a variety of ways. He ignites Manny’s farts to set campfires. He uses him as a water dispenser (don’t ask). He triggers Manny’s gag reflex by means of a kind of Heimlich manoeuvre, operating him as a kind of human (or at least recently deceased human) bazooka. He follows the direction of Manny’s erection, engendered by a model in a Sports Illustrated magazine and sustained by the cellphone picture of Hank’s crush (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), like a compass.

And at a certain point during their survivalist trek through the wilderness, Manny begins to talk. Which is nice for Hank because it gives him some company. But frustrating in that Manny can’t remember a single thing about his life. Or about life, period. Obliged to explain everything from modes of transport to falling in love by way of the plot of ‘Jurassic Park’, Hank resorts to recreating entire swathes of human society and experience by means of ramshackle models built from bits of junk that he finds in the woods.

This business gives the film its best – and most feel-good – sequence. For a while, the fart jokes, dick jokes and poop jokes are kicked so far into the background as to be forgotten about, and ‘Swiss Army Man’ enthusiastically and wholeheartedly finds its tone. For twenty minutes or so, it’s quite wonderful. Then writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan throw in a romantic rivalry subplot (trust me: shy guy vs dead guy for the hand of a woman who doesn’t even know that either of them exist is nowhere near as funny as it sounds, not that it sounds particularly funny in the first place), before shifting the dialectic to include a ‘Performance’-style examination of troilism and gender politics.

Which isn’t to say the material couldn’t have worked, but it drastically changes the film’s register (the filmmakers having already relied on the audience buying into the tonal shift from the scatological to the whimsical), to say nothing of leeching out the humour. And even then Scheinert and Kwan (or “Daniels” as they rather pretentiously bill themselves) aren’t finished: the final shift in both tone and narrative, as Hank and Manny are clumsily reintroduced into human society, utterly derails the film.

When it works, there is much to admire. The performances are fantastic. Radcliffe’s the best he’s ever been. The music works well, often providing an ironic commentary of its own. The montages are very well edited and, at its most imaginative, the film soars. As a half hour short, perhaps end stopped by some Tarkovskian images that shows Hank and Manny, at a large enough remove, bordered by human society but without being cognizant of it, ‘Swiss Army Man’ could have been a masterpiece in miniature. Even at feature length, but chopped down to about 75 minutes, a bloody good film could have cohered. Unfortunately, its 97 minutes outstay their welcome, the tone gets more ponderous as the directors scrabble for an ending, and it’s hard to shake the sense of being short-changed as you leave the cinema.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: The Conjuring 2

‘The Conjuring’ came out of nowhere three years ago – the first truly great film on James Wan’s CV, benefiting from a slow-burn atmosphere, a cluster of great performances and some chillingly effective scare scenes. That it was based on the casebooks of Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators whose work has met (putting it as politely as possible) with no small degree of scepticism, was almost beside the point. ‘The Conjuring’ was a terrific, old-school haunted house movie; whatever its roots it actuality, the case that it was based on isn’t as well known as that of the Annabelle doll (referenced as a prologue) or the Amityville haunting.

Ed and Lorraine’s Amityville investigation provides the prologue to ‘The Conjuring 2’, which then goes on to document their involvement in the Enfield haunting. The Amityville business almost overbalances the film from the off, partly because it’s all so familiar (Jay Anson’s supposedly non-fiction potboiler, Stuart Rosenberg’s histrionic 1978 adaptation, a fuckton of awful sequels and a Platinum Dunes remake), partly because we all know now that the Amityville haunting was basically bollocks, and partly because of the inelegant way Wan stages the scene, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) wandering around said property in a trance, discharging and reloading an invisible pump-action shotgun.

The scene builds to a decent climax, though, as Lorraine’s psychic connection with former Amityville resident and mass-murderer Ronald DeFeo leads her to a shadowy basement where she has a premonition of Ed (Patrick Wilson)’s death. Already haunted by the events of ‘The Conjuring’, Lorraine decides there and then that the paranormal investigation side of things is over and done with, finito, never going it back to it no more, uh-huh, no siree. And indeed, one opening credits sequence later, they’re happily doing the lecture circuit and doing TV interviews. Okay, maybe not happily: a fellow guest on the TV show loses no time in calling them out as shysters.

Then, on the opposite side of the Atlantic in a grimy suburb of London (the griminess doesn’t stop Wan throwing in a montage of every visual cliché one could possibly associate with England’s capital city, scored to – yep – ‘London Calling’ by The Clash), a single mother and her four children experience a series of inexplicable events, the ferocity of which becomes more pronounced. Naturally, Lorraine’s misgivings are eventually overcome and she and Ed join a number of other interested parties – ghosthunters, academics and sceptics – drawn to Enfield as a media circus whips itself into a frenzy. Ed and Lorraine reassure each other that they’re only there to observe and advise the church (if a reason was given as to the Catholic church in America’s interest in a semi-detached house in Enfield, UK, then I must have missed it), but it’s not long until they forge an emotional connection with the family and their involvement in the case puts them both at risk.

‘The Conjuring 2’ – while never quite hitting the heights of its predecessor (and certainly not delivering anything as brilliantly creepy as the hand-clap scene) – has a lot going for it. First and foremost, Wan’s steadfast refusal to rush things. He spends a good chunk of the first hour introducing the Hodgson family – matriarch Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and siblings Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Janet (Madison Wolfe), Johnny (Patrick McAuley) and Billy (Benjamin Haigh) – and incrementally developing the haunting. Things reach a point where the Hodgsons decamp and seek shelter with a family across the road – the Nottinghams – only for the weird shit to follow them, in the form of the film’s single best ghost: the Crooked Man. There’s also some business with a toy fire engine that’s far more unsettling than it has any right to be.

Wan also gifts a fair amount of screen time – at two and a quarter hours, ‘The Conjuring 2’ has screen time to spare – to Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney), who is the first outsider to witness the supernatural goings on at chez Hodgson, and debunker Anita Gregory (Franka Potente), who comes close to disproving the whole thing when she catches Janet faking poltergeist activity. This scene, chiming as it does with the Warrens’ talk show detractor at the start of the film, achieves something the filmmakers don’t even hint at in the original: the idea of fakery and exploitation for media interest/brief fame. Naturally, Wan and his co-writers Chad and Carey Hayes and David Leslie Johnson lose no time in declaring in favour of genuine supernatural shenanigans and hurrah the Warrens, but ‘The Conjuring 2’ contains a small seed of doubt that could be propagated in interesting ways in future instalments. (With the original making $318 million on a $20 million budget, and the sequel on course to top that on a still moderate $40 million budget, I’d say more ‘Conjuring’ movies are par for the course.)

The UK setting is very well done, once you get past the ‘London Calling’ montage. The streets and houses look authentic; interior design and the utilitarian reality of working class lives prompted memories of my childhood in the Seventies. (Though I doubt a low income family in 1977 would own a colour TV and certainly not a model with a remote control.) The performances are across-the-board good, often shading to very good. Wilson and Farmiga are already wearing the Warren personas as if they were the actors’ signature roles; O’Connor nails Peggy’s weariness, forever urging herself on to do what’s best for her kids, but utterly exhausted by the effort. Esposito and Wolfe deserve careers based on their work here.

If there’s a fault with ‘The Conjuring 2’ it’s that niggling sense of “not quite”-ness. The Crooked Man is not quite as scary as the hand-clap; O’Connor’s performance is not quite as gripping as Lili Taylor’s; the tension is not quite as unremitting; the final act not quite as focussed. The running time, at nearly 25 minutes longer than the original, is only part of the problem (there are never really any longueurs, and I’d rather have a genre film that makes time for character beats and thoughtful pauses than one that doesn’t); the over-use of effects work has something to answer for, as does the over-egged finale which almost tips it a parody of ‘The Exorcist’. But fortunately, Wan never entirely loses control of the material and ‘The Conjuring 2’ remains a commendable sequel with enough by way of its protagonists’ chemistry and their burgeoning case files to whet the appetite for ‘The Conjuring 3’.

Monday, October 10, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Backtrack

Michael Petroni’s ‘Backtrack’ goes through several tonal shifts before reaching its conclusion. It starts out almost as a re-imagining of his earlier ‘Till Human Voices Wake Us’, in which a psychologist grapples with guilt, memory and the possibility of redemption. It then becomes a sort of inverted ‘Sixth Sense’ where the shrink is alive but his patients are dead (this revelation comes early enough in the game that I don’t consider mentioning it a spoiler). Throughout its first half, it’s a study in bereavement and coping mechanisms. Throughout its second, a study in regret. It throws in a generous helping of J-horror-style vengeful ghosts. Then the final act lurches into thriller territory.

By rights, ‘Backtrack’ should be a big old mess, and it certainly makes some narrative choices in the last half hour that are, how shall we say, shopworn. But it benefits from a cluster of solid performances, a script that’s smart enough to keep the human elements foregrounded, and focused but unshowy direction. That there are at least four simply staged but very effective scare scenes is also a boon.

Our protagonist – let’s not use the word hero – is Peter Bower (Adrian Brodie). He’s grieving for the daughter he lost in a traffic accident, blaming himself for not keeping an eye on her stringently enough, trying to retain a professional detachment as regards his patients while undergoing therapy himself with mentor Duncan Stewart (Sam Neill), and losing the ability to communicate with his wife Carol (Jenni Baird) as she stubbornly isolates herself from the world around her.

Petroni establishes all of this in a series of slow burn scenes that allow the viewer to fill in some of the lacunae. But not all of them. Some lacunae are the subject of a multi-layered series of reveals as the film progresses and the waters get muddied as regards what Peter thinks he knows. Beyond the first big genre beat – shrink realises all his patients are ghosts – the plot is best kept under wraps. Let’s just say that Peter is compelled to visit his old home town where he renews an old acquaintance (much to said acquaintance’s displeasure), causes his father (George Shevtsov) no end of worry, and prompts idealistic young police officer Barbara Henning (Robin McLeavy) to begin her own off-the-books investigation.

Although the pace increases with each supernatural occurrence, and the stakes rise with every new bit of information (or rather suppressed memory) that Peter uncovers, Petroni never rushes things. For a feature of just 86 minutes, with so many narrative beats and character nuances jostling for space, it never feels rushed. Some of the tonal shifts are awkward, though, and one or two “borrowings” from other, better films (in particular the “do you have a valediction” scenes from ‘L.A. Confidential’) left me feeling that the script would have benefited from another draft or two. Maybe it’s these problems that account for its low-to-middling IMDb, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores. Far be it from me to argue with the critical consensus (he said, trying to keep a straight face), but I found in ‘Backtrack’ more to engage with than to censure